For GOP, retirements could be blessing

Greg Nash

House Republicans are staring down some tough races for open seats in 2014, but even unwelcome retirements could be a blessing if they occur now instead of later.

More than a half-dozen GOP incumbents from competitive districts have decided not to run for reelection this year. Defending those type of seats is always a headache for parties, but with 2014 shaping up to be a good year for Republicans, they’re breathing a bit easier.

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With the wind at its back, the GOP hopes that if it can hold the swing seats this time, it will have a better shot at hanging onto them in the long term.

Keeping its 17-seat majority and even expanding it in a good year would make Democrats’ climb back to the majority this decade more difficult.

“Usually, you hate these retirements as NRCC chairman, but looking over the long term, it’s the best thing for the party,” said former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.). “In a way, this could be a silver lining, going into an off year when minority turnout is lower, and there’s some anti-Obama tide.”

Republicans are defending open competitive seats from California to Virginia. Those vacancies might be Democrats’ best chance to make gains in a difficult year, but Republicans know a win this cycle will give them an incumbent who’s harder to defeat in future years.

Reps. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), Gary Miller (R-Calif.), Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), Tom Latham (R-Iowa), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) are all calling it quits, giving Democrats opportunities to win those swing seats. Additionally, Reps. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) each is running for other office, and Democrats hope to compete for their conservative-leaning seats.

The bad news for Democrats: Their hopes for a big year aren’t looking great. Midterm elections have been rough for the White House’s party in recent years, and Rep. David Jolly’s (R-Fla.) recent win in  a congressional district President Obama carried twice shows they might have trouble turning out their base this year. 

Obama’s approval ratings are also below 45 percent in most polls, hurting his party’s ability to win seats in swing areas.

Strategists know it’s almost always easier to defend an incumbent than win an open seat, so if Republicans can hold on to most of these seats this year, they’ll be in better shape in the future.

“There’s no question Republicans would rather be defending some of these open seats in 2014 than 2016,” said Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman. “This is the most ideal year for Republicans to pass the torch in their most marginal districts.”

Conversely, these seats represent some of the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities in an otherwise difficult year. If they can win some of these seats, it could be very difficult for Republicans to compete for them next time.

“The flight of moderate Republicans from competitive districts across the country has improved the playing field for Democrats and made 10 seats more competitive in the fall,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Josh Schwerin said.

While electoral coalitions are always changing, Democrats have done much better in presidential elections during the Obama years than midterms because of their reliance on young and minority voters, and problems with older, white voters, especially men. With Hillary Clinton widely expected to run for president, her lead over the GOP field in early polls gives Democrats hope that 2016 could be another strong year for coattails.

Republicans begrudgingly admit as much.

“If we lose these seats, we’re going to have to wait until 2018,” said one national GOP strategist focused on House races.

Current NRCC Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) worked to avoid retirements as any party leader would, say sources with knowledge of his efforts. 

But committee chairmen are often caught by surprise by retirement decisions. Some congressmen will let the chairmen know after they’ve already decided to retire rather than discuss the prospect with the chairmen. In some cases, the party committee finds out only minutes before the congressman makes the decision public.

Walden’s efforts were also a bit more low key than those of past chairmen, like former NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) or former DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who cajoled, begged and sometimes threatened members to keep them from retiring.

Former chairmen said they fought hard to keep their retirement lists low, even in good years for the party, because they’re focused on the immediate election cycle and their own scorecards.

“I’ve learned over a couple tours of duty as NRCC chair and on the executive committee before that, a choice of retirement by a member if he or she is choosing to retire is a very personal thing. Sometimes you can have an influence, sometimes you can’t,” said Reynolds, who led the GOP’s campaign efforts in the 2004 and 2006 elections.

Republicans feel the most confident about holding onto the seats McKeon, Wolf, Griffin and Gerlach are vacating. The four all represent GOP-leaning suburban districts that are more Republican in off-year elections, and party strategists feel good about their candidates for the seats.

They’re more nervous about Latham’s and Runyan’s seats — both represent more purely swing districts, and strategists are concerned that competitive primaries in those districts will lead to the candidates who are too conservative to win in the fall.

Democrats are also bullish about Daines’s seat; they have a strong candidate in John Lewis, a former staffer to former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and Republicans have a crowded primary field. Both sides expect Democrats to win Miller’s Democratic-leaning seat, but that has been the expectation since before he decided to retire. 

“If there’s going to be retirements, a year where momentum is on your side is a better opportunity than when it isn’t,” said Reynolds.

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